In recently published essay, CU Boulder philosophy professor offers new method for judging long-passed historical figures who, by modern standards, exemplify both redeeming and repulsive qualities
Was Thomas Jefferson a bad person? Virtuous? Minimally decent?
On the one hand, he was the primary author of the Declaration of Independence and a leading proponent of democracy who authored passionate writings on human rights as well as freedom of speech and religion. On the other, he was a slaveholder who considered Blacks naturally inferior to whites.
Against those two seemingly juxtaposed versions of Jefferson, how should society judge the man—or any long-dead historical figure, for that matter?
That’s the question University of Colorado Boulder philosophy Professor Iskra Fileva set out to answer in her essay “Virtue in a Time of Depraved Ideals,” which was published in a recent issue of Inquiry, an interdisciplinary journal of philosophy.
Attempting to determine the motivations of individuals—the actions they took and the motives for those actions—has long been a focus for Fileva, who specializes in moral psychology and issues at the intersection of philosophy, psychology and psychiatry.
It’s fitting to ask questions about those long since passed, Fileva says, in part because their legacy remains with society today. In her essay, she notes that Jefferson and other founding fathers such as George Washington and Benjamin Franklin are still generally revered rather than reviled, with countless schools, streets and libraries named after them—despite having said and done things that today are incompatible with even minimal moral decency.
In search of an appropriate standard
Fileva says she was motivated to write her essay for Inquiry in part because she felt the common standards used to evaluate long-dead historical figures don’t stand up to close scrutiny.
For example, on a view she calls the Accepted Public Standard, historical figures should be evaluated by the standard their contemporaries applied to them—and not by the ones society applies today to its own contemporaries. Jefferson met the standards of his day.
“But it would be surprising if this proposal succeeded, since it is not clear why we would endorse a judgment based on a standard held by someone else but not us,” she says, noting that it could effectively let individuals off easy even when they reasonably could have known better.
Still, Fileva does note that some historical figures lived in distant times when the general standards were so depraved that expecting them to know better was akin “to expecting them to know about black holes.” For example, in a time where the conquest and looting of neighboring countries was the norm, could the conqueror Alexander the Great have known any other way to behave?
“In those kinds of cases, we might be inclined to factor that in and possibly cut them some slack,” she says.
Fileva also considers a proposal she calls the Normative Incommensurability Standard, according to which there simply isn’t a normatively appropriate standard for evaluating long-dead people.
“It’s an idea that is sometimes popular, and I think in a way it comes from a good place, but ultimately it’s misguided,” Fileva says. “The idea is: We don’t want to engage in some kind of cultural chauvinism here and so we should just say, ‘Well, you know, to each his own.’”
However, this argument would imply, for example, that the philosopher Aristotle cannot be said to have been any better than warlord Genghis Khan (since the character of neither of these men can be evaluated by society today), which Fileva says is an implausible implication.
The idea also effectively rules out the notion that future generations can judge people today.
“Do we really think that they would be making a mistake in judging us, because, somehow, our standard and theirs would be incommensurable? So, if we destroy the environment, they wouldn’t be able to say we did anything wrong, because, hey, from our point of view, it didn’t look wrong?” she asks rhetorically. “That’s just not right, so I reject that idea, too.”
Other common standards rejected by Fileva include Best Available Standard (judging individuals more harshly if they did bad things when they should have known better, such as Nazis), the Comparative Standard (effectively judging historical figures on a bell curve, with some people in the bad camp, some in the good camp, and most people somewhere in the middle), Consequentialism About Virtue (judging individuals with a view as to whether their character traits brought about more good than bad, on balance) and Pragmatism About Virtue (ascribing traits to others when doing so is useful).
While some merit exists in all those ideas, they ultimately fail the test in one way or another as to how society should judge long-dead historical figures, Fileva argues.
So, she began formulating her own conception of how to judge those individuals. Hers is a two-tiered standard of evaluation, which combines two assessments—one is tied to the morally best standard reasonably available to the historical figure, and the second is an appraisal of that standard in light of what today’s society takes true virtue to be.
“We are really making two judgments that are in this sort of delicate dance with each other. One judgment has to do with our sense of the best standard available to the person at the time, and the other one has to do with our assessment of how good that standard is, objectively speaking,” she says. “And so, I think we might lower the virtue rating of somebody if it turns out that they score 10 on a 10-point scale on the best available standard. They did the thing that is realistically the best thing they could have known about … but the standard itself is just terrible.”
Which brings the conversation back to Aristotle.
“In some sense, we are hesitant to pronounce Aristotle a morally terrible person because we know that even though we consider ourselves not morally terrible and perhaps, morally decent, if we lived in his day and age, we would likely have had similar views,” Fileva argues in her essay. “That’s because we, too, would have been guided by the standard available to us.
“Yet, he cannot be for us a moral exemplar, because the best standard available to him was very low as compared to what we take the true standard of virtue to be.”
Is agreement in the cards?
Fileva was asked why it seems so difficult to reach a consensus about how to judge long-dead historical figures.
“I think that’s tricky, because I think part of the reason people are having debates is they have motives other than simply trying to figure out what a just evaluation of a historical figure is,” she says. “And I think that’s a situation that is usually not conducive to a resolution.”
That’s especially true when it comes to charged public symbols, such as statues honoring Civil War Confederate generals such as Robert E. Lee.
“I kind of suspect that, when people want to defend the statue, they are not just saying that he was a creature of his time. They want to say something more like, ‘This is our legacy, and we want to honor it.’”
For us, the ancient Greek civilization was, in a way, the foundation of Western civilization. So, honoring someone (from that time) seems to me quite different from honoring someone like Robert E. Lee, because what are his redeeming qualities? It’s just not clear. What else is he truly famous for—other than fighting to protect the practice of slavery?”
Which raises the question, Fileva says, what exactly is Robert E. Lee being remembered for with a statue in public square?
“For us, the ancient Greek civilization was, in a way, the foundation of Western civilization. So, honoring someone (from that time) seems to me quite different from honoring someone like Robert E. Lee, because what are his redeeming qualities? It’s just not clear. What else is he truly famous for—other than fighting to protect the practice of slavery?”
It’s understandable that people want to take pride in a shared history, Fileva acknowledges, but says humanity’s historical legacy can often be quite terrible. Given that people don’t want to hate themselves, if they see the past as shaping their current identities in important ways, many will try to cast the past in a positive light. She adds that she believes there is a better model available to everyone in the form of embracing individual responsibility.
Elsewhere, Fileva has argued that, at the root of white supremacy, is the idea that someone today who shares some group characteristic with a great person, such as Beethoven, Newton or Leonardo, benefits from the connection, because part of the achievements of the great individual will rub off on the contemporary person. In a Psychology Today blog, Fileva suggests that this is magical thinking: “If you didn’t do any of the work, you don’t get any of the rewards, either.”
She suggests that something similar is true of the bad things committed by the long-dead, including those who people see as their predecessors: “You deserve neither credit nor blame for what people did before you were born,” she says. “So, just focus on your own work and on being the best person you can be. If we manage to send that message, I think we’ll take away a lot of the motivation that people have for giving these biased accounts of history.”